Canada has over 500,000 international students who represent nearly 15 percent of the student population. With the number of international students increasing, it is important to think about what students’ experiences will be like in Canada and how universities can promote students’ comfort, wellbeing, and success. Issues like immigration barriers, financial security, housing, and health and safety resources must be examined and addressed to promote positive outcomes for international students. In addition to these factors, universities must consider how sexual violence impacts international students’ experiences.
Following the #MeToo movement, universities have faced increased pressure to protect their students from sexual violence. Unfortunately, sexual violence is omniprescent in campus communities. As reported in 2020, 71% of students in Canada have either witnessed or experienced sexual violence at their school. It can be difficult to pinpoint the impacts of sexual violence on international students because these incidents are largely underreported due to a lack of social support, a lack of clarity on the country’s policies and laws, and even fear of deportation. Additionally, while the Canadian Federation of Students notes that coming forward about sexual violence is challenging for all students, they emphasize that “these barriers are multiplied for international students, for whom both support and reporting may seem entirely inaccessible based on language, cultural, or financial barriers.”
Sexual Violence and International Students: Numbers and Nuance
The limited research on international students’ experiences of sexual violence means that we are missing critical information, but what is known is compelling. 41.6% of international students from Francophone universities in Quebec experienced at least one incident of sexual violence on campus. A survey at McGill University showed that 38.6% of international students experienced sexual harassment and 23.6% experienced sexual assault.
While a culture of sexual violence is something that all students navigate, those with international student status may face additional challenges. Previous research has found that in addition to the stressors that accompany identifying supports, reporting sexual violence and navigating the justice system can be complicated by non-citizenship status. Language fluency, complex legal and policy jargon, and a lack of targeted services can make accessing care and services more challenging. Additionally, due to non-citizenship status, some students fear that not being Canadian means that reporting a crime could adversely impact their immigration stream, or could even result in them being deported. This fear can be exploited by perpetrators of sexual violence who often exert power on a student (e.g. landlords, academic supervisors, employers). Moreover, many of these factors are exacerbated for international students of colour, who are further marginalized by race and are more likely to experience sexual violence. In Canada, women of colour are disproportionately impacted by sexual violence.
Contextualizing Sexual Violence
A documentary from Al Jazeera English titled Australia: Rape on Campus provides an in depth portrait of the impact of sexual violence on international students through interviews with survivors of sexual violence. This documentary provides valuable insight into the experiences of international students because it highlights many of their concerns, pressures, and fears. For example, an interviewee reported that:
“What we thought back then was that Australian law only protects Australians. And if we reported things like this, they’d probably think we’re causing trouble for them and we’d probably get deported, can’t finish our school. It’s a shameful thing for us. It’s the thing you will never tell your parents if it’s possible to hide it. You don’t want to upset them of course. You’re spending their money and coming this far away to study …”
This student’s testimony shows their fear of being deported and their belief that a non-citizen status entails less protection. In Canada, like many other countries with regulated international education, international student status is conditional, which means that maintaining one’s status to remain legally in a country is contingent on many factors (e.g. maintaining active student status, having adequate grades). This conditionality places students in a vulnerable position. Case law such as Liu v. Striuli has established how perpetrators weaponize international student’s status to threaten deportation if they speak out. I – Shannon – have written more on this in recent publications (Hutcheson, 2020; Hutcheson & Lewington, 2017).
Supporting International Students
Universities, student services, governments, and off-campus organizations must work together to ensure that international students are supported throughout their studies. In the context of sexual violence, this means providing students with information on their rights, creating targeted support materials and programs, and ensuring that they are given adequate support. Some organizations that are attempting to do this work through student-centered initiatives include:
- MOSAIC: MOSAIC is a Vancouver-based organization that creates international student centered workshops around sexual violence awareness, offering support and resources for reporting and hosting peer-focused events for students to access information.
- Sunoh Charity: Sunoh, derived from the Hiindi work for “listen”, is an international charity based in Canada that aims to support the mental health of international students and combat the sex trafficking of international students.
- Consent McGill: Consent McGill, hosted through McGill University’s Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (OSVRSE), offers workshops for international students to learn about healthy relationships, consent, and sexual violence.
- NIWAP: The National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project is non-profit based in the United States that advocates for the legal rights of immigrants in the United States around gender based violence. It also offers feedback and training for stakeholders to better serve and protect this population, including international students.
Future Directions and Conclusion
We – Shannon and Addy – are currently working on a systematic content analysis of US and Canadian court cases from 1980–2021 that involve international students who have experienced sexual violence at university. Our analysis will provide much-needed information about the impacts of sexual violence on international students and how these students are affected by the legal system. We anticipate that our research will unveil the people who tend to be perpetrators of sexual violence against international students (e.g. aquaintances, strangers, supervisors) as well as the circumstances that exacerbate these students’ experiences of sexual violence, such as the fear of deportation and the challenges of reporting and navigating bureaucracy for non-citizens.
It is our hope that this research will be applied to develop improved services, systems, and supports for international students who experience sexual violence. We have a collective responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, and we must not overlook or forget the international students we have welcomed into our communities.
Hutcheson, S. (2020). Sexual violence, representation, and racialized identities: Implications for international students. Education & Law Journal, 29(2), 191–221.
Hutcheson, S., & Lewington, S. (2017). Navigating the labyrinth: Policy barriers to international students’ reporting of sexual assault in Canada and the United States. Education & Law Journal, 27(1), 81–98.
Shannon Hutcheson (she/her) is a PhD candidate in The Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University with a focus on international education. She is an international educator and advocate with strong interest in comparative and international education, student support, and policy. Shannon has worked across educational contexts in the United States, France, and Canada and values a comparative and critical lens. Shannon’s current research initiatives include international students and equity, the impact of policy and geopolitics on international students, the experiences of racialized international students, and the analysis of case law and policy around international student survivors of sexual violence under the iMPACTS project.
Addy Parsons (she/her) is an undergraduate student at McGill University pursuing a Bachelor’s of Education and a Bachelor’s of Music. As an international student and educator herself, she is especially interested in comparative analysis of policy between jurisdictions, as well as seeing the practical effects of these educational policies over longer terms. Addy’s current research dives into the experiences of international students reporting sexual violence as they navigate the legal system though an in-depth analysis of case law and policy under the iMPACTS project.